Benefits of Flotation Therapy for Athletes and Runners

I hate silence. Spotify is my constant companion. I don’t quite comprehend how some people run without headphones. This constant stream of sensory input is a security blanket for my mind—mostly because it drastically reduces the amount of time I have to spend “alone” with my overstressed, anxiety-riddled thoughts. When it comes to dealing with those, well, that’s why I have a therapist.

I know stress—at least the sort of chronic stress that millions of Americans, including myself, battle—is the antithesis of health. Research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise even shows it can reduce the body’s ability to recover from and reap the benefits of exercise.

So when one of my best friends texted me that she had just tried flotation therapy per her therapist’s suggestion—and loved it—I realized that it might be more than just a trendy treatment. Maybe this was the answer to calming my mind and relieving some stress.

What is Flotation Therapy?

Flotation therapy is a process in which you float on water in a bed-sized container, called a pod, that’s devoid of all light and sound. Many athletes use float therapy, like British 400-meter hurdler Tasha Danvers, who took home bronze at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Even Team USA gymnast Aly Raisman floated in preparation for the 2016 Rio Games.

Having been available (albeit not exactly popular) for more than 50 years, this type of sensory deprivation therapy is actually decently researched.

For instance, back in 1983, research published in Biofeedback and Self-Regulation found that floating results in a significant reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A 2006 study in the International Journal of Stress Management went on to find that the association drop in stress and anxiety lasts for up to four months after being treated a dozen times. And more recently, a 2018 study published in PLoS One Found a one hour session of flotation therapy helped reduce stress, muscle tension, pain, and depression in participants with stress-related disorders.

What’s more, researchers have begun to explore how flotation therapy can aid with recovery in athletes. A small pilot study published in the journal Performance Enhancement and Health of 60 elite athletes found flotation therapy—when completed within one to three hours after a training session—can be an effective way for athletes to recover physically and mentally from exercise.

After all, flotation is pretty similar to meditation. But by depriving the senses of sight, sound, and touch, float pods may make it a lot easier to tame the an overly stimulated mind and get into that meditative state. Some people, especially athletes, use their sessions as a mental “blank slate” for completing performance-boosting visualization exercises, explains clinical and sports psychologist Leah Lagos Wallach, Psy.D.

“Runners may see, smell, hear, or feel aspects such as running free, overcoming fatigue, and crossing the finish line in their desired time,” she says. “By quieting their minds, they can strengthen their focus while giving them much needed physiological and psychological.”

Once I knew what I was getting myself into, I was ready to try it.

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The Set Up

When I arrived at Float Sixty in Chicago’s Loop back, I was already stressed and running late. Fortunately, the man behind the reception desk didn’t seem to mind. As cool as a cucumber, he walked me back to my private float room—equipped with a clam-looking float pod, shower, and shelf filled with toiletries—to explain to me how the whole thing worked.

I would wash off in the shower, scrub my hair, but not put in conditioner. (It’s apparently bad for the pod.) Then, I’d put in earplugs, which would eliminate any sound that made its way into the room and prevent water from getting into my ears. If I had any cuts or scrapes on my body, I was to cover them with petroleum jelly. Float pods are full of Epsom salt—about 800 or more pounds for you to be completely buoyant—which allows for practitioners to effortlessly float in six to 12 inches of water without bumping their butt into the bottom. Lagos notes that the magnesium sulfate in Epsom salt also serves to help relax sore muscles and potentially aid in recovery. The salt would sting if it got into any scrapes.

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After I did all this, I could get in the water and, if I chose, close the pod’s lid. (You don’t have to close the lid if you’re claustrophobic, but a teeny bit of light can sneak in then.) The room’s lights were equipped with motion sensors and would automatically go out after about 10 seconds or so of no movement . When my time was up—I paid $60 for an hour-long session, although die-hard devotees often float for even longer—music would start playing as my cue to exit.

Once the cucumber guy left, I did as I was told. I got in (completely naked, if you’re wondering), and closed the lid for the full effect.

Inside the Sensory Deprivation Tank

Dropping back into the water, I worked to fully relax my neck—placing my head back and chin up—rather than “crunch” my neck with my chin toward my chest. It was definitely counterintuitive, but eventually, I eased into the fact that I truly was too buoyant to sink.

Now resting comfortably, the water came up within a centimeter or two from the corners of my eyes. That’s when things went awry. I tried to scratch an itch by one eye, not thinking about the fact that Epsom salt does not feel good in your eyeballs. Half-blinded and wincing, I opened the pod, sat up to reach the spray bottle on the shelf next to the pod, and sprayed clean water in my eye. I repeated that process about four more times before the discomfort fully subsided.

Eventually, I was able to get into my float. The longer I was in the water, the less I felt it. I had known that the pod was designed to maintain a water temperature of about 93 or 94—the equivalent of the average person’s skin temp—but it still was pretty bizarre when I couldn’t tell if the back of my hands were fully underwater or floating on top. I opened my eyes to settle the dispute, but I couldn’t see anything.

I spent some time playing with the whole no-light experience. I shut my eyes and opened them again to see if I could see any difference. I tried to look “through” the darkness, since I had heard some people likened sensory deprivation to an acid trip. (People hallucinate when they are on acid, right?) I eventually saw neon outlines of moving shapes. But it might have been a placebo.

Then I got bored about 45 minutes into it. What my time up yet? I tried to relax, but doing nothing started to make me feel anxious. Deep breaths. I had carved out a full hour in my schedule to this; there was no reason to rush.

I started to hear something. What am I hallucinating again? After about 30 seconds or so, the under-water acoustics from the music got loud enough that I knew I wasn’t making it up. The hour was up.

Benefits of Flotation Therapy

As I showered all the Epsom salt off and got dressed, it became clear that I was actually relaxed. I felt refreshed, but my limbs were heavy. It was a weird combination of peppy and groggy.

When I walked past the meditation room on my way out, I decided to go inside. I sat down on the cushions covering the floor of the tiny, exposed-brick room. I leafed through Soul Pancake. I ruminated over his prompts: “How do our minds affect our health?” “List the five risks you haven’t had the guts to take yet.”

The chilled-out effect lasted for a handful of hours. After all, once I slowly meandered my way home, totally relaxed and not thinking about anything, I sat down at my desk to work. “Oh, yeah, deadlines,” I thought. Stress was back in session.

A couple of weeks later, I went for my second float. The cucumber guy and psychologists I had talked to said it took practice to really get good at flotation therapy.

Just the second time around, though, I found it easier to relax, and the time definitely went by faster than it had during my first float. I spoke with M. Ellis Jaruzel, Psy.D., cofounder and chief research officer at Therapy.Live about my overloaded mind, and he recommended anchoring my attention to something internal, like my breath.

By my third session, it only took (what I can only assume was) a few minutes for my mind to peace out. I’m sure I hadn’t fallen asleep, but the music was suddenly playing. Where had the hour gone?

I’m now about half a dozen sessions in after about 10 weeks and the post-float feel-good vibes definitely last longer than they used to. For several days afterward, it seems like the volume is turned down just slightly on my mind. I’m able to fall asleep without quite as much tossing and turning—and if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m able to get back to sleep without restarting Netflix.

Since starting flotation therapy, I’ve been able to perform my first unassisted set of pull-ups and am able to get through my winter treadmill workouts without cutting them short because of boredom. Less stress and better sleep can only move the needle in the fit direction, right?

In the end, I don’t feel like flotation is a turn-your-health-upside-down sort of experience, but it’s definitely one of many tools that can be a valuable addition to any person’s healthy-living toolbox. I’m glad that I’m slowly learning how to just beand dropping in a float tank is something I plan on sticking with over the long term.

And maybe someday I’ll be able to run without music in my ears.

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